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A Vicarious Wannabe

by J.

Lon (Leonidas Frank) Chaney (1883-1930) was a star of the silent cinema. The only child of parents who were both deaf-mutes, he communicated with them in part through facial signalling, and in part by pantomime. This is probably an ideal training for a silent-film star. He had a long career acting in about a hundred films before he gained star billing. He played mainly villains in the early part of his career having a mobile rather heavy-featured face. His major successes followed as he developed into a character actor with a leaning towards the grand guignol. He developed the techniques of make-up for the cinema and produced a gallery of grotesques with horrifying faces. He played Blind Pew in Tourneur's version of Treasure Island, and later he played a notable Fagin in Oliver Twist. Perhaps the most horrifying of his faces was the make-up he developed for the original version of The Phantom of the Opera, where his face, transformed by such extreme devices as the insertion of metal rings into the nostrils, resembles a living skull. The make-up he developed distorted his facial tissue very severely and he was in considerable pain when it was applied. He seems to have taken a (perverse?) satisfaction in suffering for his art. He also developed techniques of constricting his body in harnesses to modify its overall appearance. Typically he played Quasimodo in the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, wearing a hump said to have weighed thirty pounds and a harness to keep him bent, that weighed another forty. The facial make- up included a collapsed eyeball, and a dental bridge which was almost certainly extremely uncomfortable to wear. The extreme physical and facial deformation he was prepared to undergo was recognized by the Hollywood witticism: 'Don't step on it' - Whatever it might have been - 'it might be Lon Chaney.'

He played bilateral amputees in two films. I haven't seen either, although I have seen stills from both of them. In the first, The Penalty (1921), he played a criminal who had lost both his legs. For this part his legs were doubled back and bound extremely tightly behind him, and he wore tight leather sleeves over the knees. The still, reproduced in Brownlow (1979) pp. 128--129, shows him standing on a table, where a group of women are working, weaving straw hats. He is supporting himself with one crutch under his left arm, and holding the other with his left hand. He has grabbed one of the women by the hair and is glowering at her. He suffered great pain from the binding of his legs, and this was aggravated by walking, and also by jumping on his knees.

In the second, The Unknown (1927), starring with Joan Crawford, and directed by Tod Browning, another connoisseur of the unusual, he played Alonzo the Great, an armless knife-thrower working in a circus. Alonzo the Great was said to have had his arms amputated for the love a girl who couldn't tolerate being held in a man's arms. For this part Chaney's arms were tightly bound to his sides by a strait-jacket. There is some confusion in the different synopses of this film. Some imply that the character Alonzo really did have his arms amputated, others imply that he only pretended to have his arms amputated, and that he had two normal arms and used them to murder somebody, but was caught because a witness had observed the hands of the murderer but not the rest of him, and one of the hands had six fingers. Alonzo was caught when it was discovered that he had two arms it and that he had six fingers on one hand.

By current standards both these films are in extremely dubious taste, yet The Unknown was made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, not normally thought of as a sleazy company, and at the time neither seems to have attracted significant criticism on that ground.

Chaney died in 1930 of bronchial cancer. He had just completed his first talkie, in which typically, he played several voices. On his father's death, Lon Chaney's lumbering son, Creighton, a peculiarly acharismatic actor with a minuscule range, changed his name to Lon Chaney, Jr, and became almost a permanent part of the stock company in the second cycle of Universal horror films in the later thirties; and it is the son who is usually associated with the name, but the father, Lon Chaney himself, with his predilection for self- inflicted pain, and his obsession with portraying the extremities of human variation, is a macabre reminder of that darker aspect of the fairground and the circus, the freak show.


Hollywood: The pioneers
Kevin Brownlow (1979)
Collins, London.
Horror Movies: An illustrated survey
Carlos Clarens (1971)
Panther Books, London.
Halliwell's film goer's and video viewer's companion
Leslie L. Halliwell (1989)
Grafton, London
A film encyclopedia
Ephraim Katz (1979)
Thomas Crowell, New York.
Further information about Lon Chaney and his films may be found on the Internet Movie Database.
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